Lemon balm is a sweet, lemony scented herb in the mint family that's native to Europe and the Mediterranean region. Its subtle lemon flavor with mint and herb undertones makes it a popular relaxing tea.
Melissa officinalis L.
Botanical Family: Laminaceae
Common name: Lemon balm
Synonyms: melissa, balm, sweet balm, bee balm, melissa balm, hoja de melissa (Spanish)
The Plant: Lemon balm is member of the mint family. It's a perennial plant, very easy to grow, and it makes a sweet-smelling addition to the herb garden that attracts bees. The plant grows up to three feet tall and has a bushy habit. The toothed leaves are heavily veined, darker green with whitish bristles on the top and stem. (See photo) The ivory flowers are tiny and indistinct. All of the above-ground plant parts are fragrant, but the leaves have the highest amount of essential oil. They should be harvested for drying just before flowering for maximum oil content. Lemon balm is native to southern Europe, Asia and northern Africa and has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. Commercial cultivation of the herb continues to this day in southern and eastern Europe.
Constituents of Note: The plant contains 0.02% 0.3 of a powerful essential oil that is used in aromatherapy and fine perfumery, but because of the small amount of oil present in lemon balm, the pure essential oil — also known as melissa oil — is very expensive. (Because of this, melissa oil is one of the most adulterated essential oils in the world, being cut with or even replaced with other lemony essential oils — such as lemongrass, lemon catnip, lemon eucalyptus — and natural or synthetic citronellal and citral.) The pure essential oil of the lemon balm plant contains over 70 constituents with two components citral (mix of geraniol and nerol) and citronellal comprising up to 97% of oil.
Quality: The most important quality indicator for lemon balm is the flavor and aroma of the herb. The key components of the essential oil are responsible for the characteristic aroma and flavor of the herb. These constituents are greatly reduced upon drying and storage of lemon balm. Therefore the key to good quality is fast drying — in the shade and at low temperatures (less than 120 degrees F.) — and good storage. Lemon balm is best replaced every year with the new crop.
Lemon balm herb's flavor should be slightly lemony and herbaceous, but not citrusy. Color is another good indicator of quality — lemon balm leaves should be a nice medium green in color. Poorly dried lemon balm leaves turn dark or black. Unlike the oil, the herb is rarely adulterated, and adulterations with lemon catnip or other herbs can be readily identified by visual, flavor, or microscopic inspection. (An overly citrusy flavor is one easily detected indication of adulteration.) Lemon balm leaf differs from lemon balm herb in the amount of stem present in the product. Lemon balm leaf should be 90 to 95% leaf with no large, woody stems present while lemon balm herb may contain up to 60% stem. Lemon balm leaf is therefore more expensive but well worth the extra cost because the stems have little value.
Regulatory Status: GRAS (Title 21 182.10 and 182.20) as a spice, natural flavoring, and seasoning, Dietary Supplement
Did you know? The genus name Melissa is derived from a Greek word for bees. Lemon balm has long been associated with bees that are said to be attracted to the scent. At one time, beekeepers even rubbed fresh lemon balm leaves inside of a new hive to encourage the bees to stay. Not all insects like lemon balm as much as bees, — some are repelled by the lemony scent.
Directions: To make lemon balm tea, pour one cup of hot water over two teaspoons of lemon balm herb, cover and let stand three to five minutes. Boiling water drives off much of the leaves' essential oil, so using cooler water temperatures when brewing and covering while steeping helps protect the delicate flavor. Lemon balm sun tea is tasty and refreshing and is a good alternative to hot water brewing for protecting the tea flavor.
Suggested Uses: Lemon balm makes a lovely, soft, lemony tea that is enjoyed just for it flavor. It also has other benefits. It's relaxing and uplifting to the mind. It makes a soothing before or after meals tea and a calming, before bedtime tea. It's considered a remedy for the heart charka —helping open one up to love and acceptance. Lemon balm is a nice additional to herbal tea blends, adding a nice touch of flavor as well as its relaxing benefits to the blends.
Lemon balm is also used as a seasoning in sprinkle-on spice mixtures and herb vinegars, or combined with other herbs, fruits, or spices in making punch or flavored wine. Cooking destroys the flavor, so it's not usually used in cooked dishes or in baking.
In personal care products, lemon balm is used an ingredient in skin toners, lip balms and lotions. It makes a cleansing facial steam and the leaves can be tied in a cloth and added to the bath.
Lemon balm also makes a good addition to sleep pillows in combination with other sleep pillow herbs such as hops, mugwort and lavender flowers.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies lemon balm as:
Class:1 Herbs which can be safely consumed when used appropriately.
Per the German Commission E Monograph** for lemon balm, there are no known contraindications, side effects or drug interactions.
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)
**Mark Blumenthal, ed., The Complete German Commission E Monographs, (Austin TX: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998
Origins: Our lemon balm leaf is cultivated in the northwestern United States.